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February 11, 2022

COVID Lockdowns Didn’t Impact Masturbation Habits As Much As You Thought

Our study also found people used sex toys less. What's that about?
Published on
February 11, 2022
Updated on
— What's changed?
Medically Reviewed by
3 minute read

This article is part of a series highlighting findings from The State of Sex — an O.school original 2021 study in partnership with Pilotly. The State of Sex study consisted of a 103-question online survey administered to 1,074 US participants, ages 18-75 with an average age of 44. 

The study was representative of the US population and oversampled Black, Asian, and Latinx respondents to obtain holistic, readable data on ethnicities and sexual orientation. Our findings enable us to better understand sexual habits, behaviors, attitudes, and consumption. 

For people around the world, COVID-19 has caused big changes. Many of us have experienced isolation and mental health challenges, as lockdowns and quarantines have separated us from friends, families, and partners. With partnered sex out of reach for some, and stress levels at an all-time high for many, how were people getting their sexual needs met? The answer might surprise you. 

A little less than half of Americans said their masturbation habits didn’t change

During the pandemic, you might assume people were masturbating more than usual given all the alone time in lockdowns, the need to relieve stress and anxiety, or the need for an alternative to sex with a partner when dating wasn’t really “a thing.” That was partially true: 15% of people who responded to the State of Sex Survey said that they’d masturbated more during the pandemic. Surprisingly, however, 12% said they’d actually masturbated less often during COVID — and a quarter said they hadn’t masturbated at all. Almost half of respondents (40%) said their masturbation habits didn’t change one way or another.

What could explain why a quarter didn’t masturbate during the pandemic? It’s possible that some people experienced a reduction in sex drive during the pandemic due to increased stress, anxiety, or mental or physical health problems. Additionally, O.school’s data showed that people with partners were less likely to have masturbated than single people. This could be because those in relationships were more likely to have partnered sex instead of masturbating, or because they didn’t have as much alone time. 

People used sex toys less

Sex toys can be a great way to give yourself sexual pleasure and enhance solo sex. Given that, it makes sense that people with fewer opportunities for partnered sex might increase their use of toys. The State of Sex survey found, however, that around 60% of people either used sex toys less often than before the pandemic, or not all all. Consistent with findings from the State of Sex, researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine found that, among people who reported changes to their use of sex toys, the majority actually used them less often. The authors of the study speculated that having young children, experiencing increased responsibilities at home, and worrying about COVID may have led some people to decrease certain sexual behaviors, either due to having less time and privacy for sexual expression, or because of increased stress.

Sexting wasn’t all that popular, either

Finally, the State of Sex survey found that sexting — an activity seemingly well-suited to social distancing — wasn’t as common as you might think. Only 36% of our respondents had ever sexted, and just 34% said they’d sexted during the pandemic. Sexuality researcher and educator Dr. Shemeka Thorpe tells O.school that age might be a factor: She tells O.school that, with an average age of 44, the majority of O.school’s survey respondents might not generally sext as often as younger generations. Of people who did send sexts, 71% reported sexting either the same amount as, or less often, than before; only 21% sexted more often during the pandemic. This could be because sexting isn’t seen as a substitute for in-person sexual contact. People may sext within established sexual relationships as a way to connect with their partners while apart, or as a way to flirt before an in-person hookup with someone new. Since many people were hooking up less, and spending more time with their significant others, sexting may simply not have been an important sexual outlet.

The bottom line 

During COVID, we all had plenty of alone time, but when it comes to sex, people weren’t taking advantage of the extra time in the ways you might think. Perhaps people weren’t prioritizing sexual pleasure, felt a reduced drive due to emotional and physical stressors, or, maybe, other aspects of life took on greater importance. Whatever the reasons, it’s interesting to learn about the sexual habits and behaviors of Americans during the pandemic. Want to see what other findings we have on people’s sexual habits? Check out our full State of Sex report. 

Have a hot take on this State of Sex finding? Subscribe to our newsletter and learn more about our study here. Tell us your thoughts on why you think COVID didn’t impact people’s masturbation habits that much.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Emily A. Klein is a freelance writer with deep interests in science, culture, and health. As a student of cultural anthropology, she researched and wrote about kink, reproductive rights, cross-cultural medicine, and humans’ relationship with technology. She has designed and implemented a sexual health curriculum for adolescent girls, worked with foster youth and people experiencing housing insecurity, and volunteered as an emergency first responder. Her writing has appeared in The Establishment, Edible magazine, The Seattle Lesbian, Slog, and elsewhere.

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